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Dr. Jennifer Kemp, a Denver radiologist, is leading an effort to make radiologists more accessible to patients.CreditJustin Edmonds for The New York Times

When Dr. Jennifer Kemp’s husband got advanced rectal cancer, she got an unexpected patient’s-eye view of her profession.

Her husband was having scans every three months, terrified each time that they might reveal bad news. Dr. Kemp, a Denver radiologist, would sit down with her husband’s radiologist afterward. Even so, it could be an hour before a scan was ready to be viewed.

“I couldn’t believe how anxiety-provoking it was to wait even an hour,” she said. “Sometimes he would get a scan I didn’t feel comfortable interpreting and he had to spend 24 hours waiting — and I had connections,” she added. “That was absolute torture.”

What must other patients go through, she wondered. Is there any reason that results are a private communication between a radiologist and referring physician? Is there any reason that patients end up waiting days, sometimes weeks, for their doctors to reveal what scans showed? Could radiologists actually talk to patients and give them results immediately?


It seemed to be a problem that could be solved, Dr. Kemp said.

She now heads a committee of the Radiological Society of North America that strives to make radiologists more accessible to patients, including by giving test results right away if asked, by either meeting with patients or talking to them on the phone. Dr. Kemp does that and gives all her patients and their doctors her direct telephone number.

The American College of Radiology has a similar initiative. The groups say the time is right — patients are more and more insistent on knowing how and why doctors make decisions about their care. And more and more medical centers and doctors’ offices are allowing patients to log on and see their medical records, which can include reports on scans.

Neither group is advocating laws requiring radiologists to tell patients their results. Instead they hope to make their case by demonstrating how some radiologists have successfully managed to communicate with patients and by letting radiologists know this is something patients want.

The groups discussed their ideas with members and published them in journals and on their websites.

But many people never consider asking to speak to a radiologist and many doctors seem to have no relationships with radiologists — they just hand patients a prescription for a scan and let them get it wherever they want. So change might take some doing.

And some radiologists say talking directly to patients is anathema. A radiologist, despite an M.D. degree, cannot answer questions about drugs or surgery and without knowing the clinical history may not know if abnormalities are important. And would doctors even refer patients to a radiologist who blurts out a scan’s results?

For now — with one big exception — how quickly a patient gets the results of a scan, including M.R.I.s, PETs, CTs or ultrasounds, can be idiosyncratic and depend on the particular doctor and the particular patient.

Yet patients want to hear from radiologists, the groups say. One admittedly unscientific indicator was patients’ comments to the American College of Radiology on Twitter. They said they did not want to wait for results and could not understand why a radiologist would tell a doctor their results but not them, said Dr. Geraldine McGinty, chairwoman of the group’s commission on economics.

Nonetheless, Dr. McGinty said, if a scan shows something really serious or unexpected, she tries to contact the referring doctor before telling the patient. “If this is not possible and the patient asks to speak directly with me, I’ll make the call to the other doctor as soon as possible, ideally before the patient leaves my office,” she said.

The exception is mammograms, where most radiologists meet with women immediately after their scan and those who don’t send women their report. They have to, notes Dr. McGinty, herself a mammographer. The Mammography Quality Standards Act of 1992 requires that women get their results from a radiologist and says that if the scan indicates a woman needs a biopsy, the radiologist has to have a face-to-face conversation with her.

Steve Burrin asks for a copy of his CT scan results immediately after they are performed and takes them home to attempt to understand them for himself. CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

But despite the efforts of the two radiology groups, many radiologists remain sequestered in dark rooms, reading scans, sending reports to doctors within 24 hours, and letting the referring doctors decide how and when to talk to patients.

Dr. Christopher Beaulieu, chief of musculoskeletal imaging at Stanford, says patients almost never ask to see their scans or talk to him or his colleagues. And, he said, on the rare occasions when they do ask, “there is pushback” from radiologists and referring physicians.

Radiologists just do not have time to meet with many patients, Dr. Beaulieu said, adding that he and others especially worry about what happens when the news is bad. “At that point the radiologist may be capable of transmitting the information but the obvious next question for the patient is, ‘What do I do now?’ which, as nontreating physicians, radiologists are not trained to answer.”

Patients in that situation could panic, frantically calling their doctor, who may not even have seen the result yet. Dr. Beaulieu deals mostly with orthopedic surgeons who, he says, “don’t want some radiologist telling them or their patients what is wrong or what to do.”

Changing the system, Dr. McGinty says, requires a culture shift. It starts, she says, with radiologists getting to know referring doctors. “It can mean getting on the phone and talking to physicians.” She does that and says her referring doctors “are comfortable with me speaking to the patients because they know who I am.”

The radiology group also posts videos that show radiologists how to talk to doctors and patients. Dr. McGinty suggests that patients who want to speak to a radiologist should simply ask.

“Most radiologists certainly should be available,” she says, adding that at her own institution, Cornell, they are.

Patricia Pede, a 33-year-old melanoma patient in Dallas, said it never occurred to her to speak to a radiologist. She has frequent scans, and is always scared while she waits days and, once, as long as two weeks, for her doctor to get back to her. “It’s hard to keep it off your mind,” she says.

But some who tried to speak to their radiologist say it was not easy.

“The chance of your actually seeing a radiologist is almost zero,” said Steve Burrin, a physicist and retired vice president of The Aerospace Corporation. Mr. Burrin, 70, who has lung cancer and lives in Los Angeles, has so many scans — CT, M.R.I., PET — that he decided to take matters into his own hands. Now, he immediately asks for a copy of his scan and tries to understand it himself.

He recalls a time when he wanted to discuss a scan report with the radiologist. He called repeatedly but the radiologist never returned his calls.

“So I just went there,” Mr. Burrin said. “I found the guy’s office and walked in.”

“He seemed physically afraid of me,” Mr. Burrin said. He believes the radiologist never saw patients, so “his immediate reaction was to hit the panic button.”

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